Book Review: The Fall of the US Empire – Global Fault-Lines and the Shifting Imperial Order

A review I wrote of Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay’s 2012 book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.

The study of empire, hegemony and long-term power structures has attracted many prominent and respected authors. On the left these have included Giovanni Arrighi, Eric Hobsbawm, Hardt and Negri, and of course Lenin and Trotsky. Vassilis Fouskas and Bülent Gökay, two professors of international relations of socialist sympathy, are among the latest to attempt a reframing of the debate for the contemporary period.

‘Global fault-lines’ is the way Fouskas and Gökay explain the decline of US power, an approach to international relations which uses the geological metaphor of ‘tectonic plates’. Inspired by Andre Gunder Frank, and specifically his post-Marxist works, Fouskas and Gökay sketch out various fault-lines which mark the points at which the ‘tectonic plates’ collide and crumble: the ‘failure of financial statecraft’, ‘the power shift to the Global East’ and ‘depletion and degradation’, the latter referring to both the impending scarcity of oil, water and food but also to climate change and its associated problems. The main thrust of the book is that the US is in serious decline, and that even if it manages to recover, it will only be one power among many: Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, China and India, referred to (in somewhat puzzling fashion) as the ‘Global East’. This is contrary to the assertions of Leo Panitch (for whom US hegemony is not declining, merely ‘restructuring’) and Ray Kiely (who sees a ‘clash of globalisations’).

Fouskas and Gökay make a historical comparison between contemporary China and India on the one hand, and the United States in the nineteenth century on the other: ‘a huge continental economy with a young population, providing the driving force that enabled it to grab the lead in agriculture, apparel and the high technologies of the era’ (Fouskas and Gökay, p.115). In this way they follow several of the other authors referred to above in seeing both a generalized leeching of global power from the US to China, and the specific possibility that China will emerge as the new global hegemon.

This is in contrast to the work of Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, who claim that China has no imperial ambition beyond its own borders. This sort of political-culture argument is, however, undermined by the economic reality. [1] In their recent book The Making of Global Capitalism (2012), Panitch and Gindin refer to the American crisis of the 1970s as ‘neither decline nor moderation but restructuring’ (Panitch and Gindin, p.183). That restructuring, they claim, was borne out of necessity: the necessity of expanding markets to a global scale but on American terms. They argue that hegemonic power is not shifting eastwards, instead suggesting that the world is entering a multipolar phase. Fouskas and Gökay seem to see the multipolar near-future as a transitional stage before the hegemonic rise of the ‘Global East’.

In other ways, The Fall of the US Empire is similar to The Making of Global Capitalism, arguing that US imperialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In this respect, there is some crossover with the political ‘realism’ of Chalmers Johnson (Dismantling the Empire) and David P. Calleo (Follies of Power) who argue that the US state ought to recognise its own (overreached) limits before the costs of running an empire become prohibitive. Fouskas and Gökay do not necessarily see such ‘overstretch’ in military terms though: their critique is rooted in political economy, and they identify ‘Open Door Imperialism’, the imposition of free market ideology (and eventually financialization) through coercion and without reciprocation, as the destabilising factor.

In fact, one of their main objections to Giovanni Arrighi’s work is his apparent underplaying of the weakness inherent in America’s imposition of economy policy throughout large swathes of the world. The other objection cuts to the heart of the debate on empire, hegemony and power: does the rise and fall of imperial nations constitute a cyclical pattern or are should we be thinking about a series of related but ultimately separate phases of capitalism? On this matter, the authors of The Fall of the US Empire are somewhat unfair to Arrighi, as indeed are Panitch and Gindin. They present a caricature of his work which does not, as they suggest, equate early modern city states with contemporary global empires. Arrighi made it perfectly clear that he considered the concentration of power in the financial sector, over-commitment to foreign wars, and increasing government debt, to be signs of American decline.

Hardt and Negri (in EmpireCommonwealth and Multitude) argue that the globalisation of both ‘empire’ – broadly, the state, military and financial elites and their power structures – and the ‘multitude’ (the rest of us) has set up the world for a generalised conflict between the two. They are optimistic about the prospects for a revolution of the multitude against the empire. Fouskas and Gökay do not go into much detail about broad (transnational) class solidarity in this way, instead concentrating on the relative positions of nation-states, though they are also optimistic about opportunities for ‘socialism and green politics … [and] new radical forces’. Against this optimism, though, they (rightly) emphasise the emergence of what they call the ‘increasingly predatory state’ whose functions – ‘police, surveillance, violence’ – are intended to suppress the ‘multitude’. Care must, of course, be taken with the entire concept of ‘multitude’: in its broad nature and inherently vague definition, it tends to obscure crucial class dynamics.

Finally, how does the theory of ‘global fault-lines’ relate to Trotsky’s thesis of uneven and combined development? Trotsky argued that despite an inherent interconnection between national economies and societies, development could advance along various paths and at strikingly different speeds. Fouskas and Gökay characterise their work as a challenge to Trotsky’s position, an attack on not only Trotsky’s supposed Eurocentrism but also on his privileging of economic factors. Yet within uneven and combined development we can find many of the factors (or ‘fault-lines’) they identify. As with their objections to Arrighi, there is a tendency towards the construction of a straw man. Trotsky always claimed that the Russian Revolution could only be understood in a global context, as the expression of many long-term historical processes; where Europe takes centre-stage, it is often simply as a reflection of concrete realities.

Though the book is partly conceived of as a challenge to Trotsky, the authors concede that uneven and combined development in conjunction with the imminent environmental and resource crises will undermine the current dominance of the US and its allies. Finally, Fouskas and Gökay do (despite their claims to the contrary) return to economic determinants in the final analysis: as capital ‘gains mastery’ over global markets’ ‘inherited unevenness’, it exerts pressures in contradictory ways, and this accounts for the counterproductive nature of ‘Open Door Imperialism’ (Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Part One, Section Four).

This is a compelling, interesting book. It is punchy, has a clear line of argument and is written in an engaging style and with some fascinating data. In short, it has much to add to the discussion of the future of the US as an imperial power, including some very strong sections dealing with trends and predictions. However, it does have two significant flaws: one, its claims to originality are a little overstated, since many of the battles it picks with existing left-wing theories of empire turn out to be minor quibbles or changes of emphasis, or based on apparent mischaracterisations of other authors’ work; and the other, a tendency to give the concept of ‘global fault-lines’ a much more profound and revolutionary explanatory power than it perhaps merits.

Notes

1. A different political-culture argument can be found in Walter Nugent’s Habits of Empire, which sees a longstanding and inertial culture of imperialism as determining the US’ foreign policy.

Published in: on September 2, 2014 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Book Review: “Gerrard Winstanley: The Digger’s Life and Legacy”

A review I wrote of John Gurney’s recent book. N.B. This review has appeared elsewhere.

 

‘Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?’

- Gerrard Winstanley (The New Law of Righteousness, 1649)

For those familiar with the excellent (if rather odd) 1975 film Winstanley, these lines may ring out in actor Miles Halliwell’s serene, well-spoken, home-counties voice. While we can never know what Winstanley really sounded like, enough is known of his life to give a fascinating insight into much of his personal and political journey. Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676) was of the ‘middling sort’, a cloth trader from Wigan who moved to London, lost his business and became one of the founders of a lasting radical tradition: that of the Diggers.

As John Gurney points out in the introduction to his recent book, the time seems ripe for a reappraisal and wider dissemination of the thought of Winstanley. Issues of gross inequality, pressure on the natural environment, the oppressive role of the state (and its favouring of the wealthy), and the alienation of people from the product of their labour all gripped Winstanley, and they of course remain key problems for the contemporary left. This volume cuts to the heart of Winstanley’s thought on these topics and many more, yet it goes beyond the work of one man and successfully puts the Digger movement in its historical context.

After a stirring introduction, the second chapter gives a good outline of the material links between Wigan (and Lancashire more generally) and London through the burgeoning textile industry and its associated guilds; this was the tumultuous world of early mercantile capitalism. Winstanley’s retreat from London, caused seemingly by failure in his chosen trade, led him to Cobham in Surrey. His radicalisation there took place during personal economic difficulties but Gurney sensibly declines to assign direct causality; we should not automatically assume that it was only because the system failed for Winstanley that he turned against it.

Indeed, Gurney’s excellent contextualisation of the religious (moral) framework embraced by Winstanley and others suggests that egalitarianism was a growing concern at this time. This is a similar line to that taken by Christopher Hill, whose work should probably be read alongside Gurney’s biography. Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) paints a broad picture of the many contemporary political and religious radicalisms which erupted in seventeenth-century Britain. While Hill covered the Diggers only relatively briefly, Winstanley emerged, according to Gurney, as ‘the real hero, and the true revolutionary’ (p.7).(1)

The third chapter traces intellectual parallels and antecedents relating to Winstanley’s ‘Digger’ writings, but again Gurney declines to speculate on direct influences, instead pointing to the more general milieu of common radical and millenarian ideas. Gurney identifies two major innovations in the Digger movement, both important strands of Winstanley’s works: the consistent complaint that the English were still living under the Norman Yoke (that is, an aristocratic, arbitrary elite imposed from without), and the failure of that elite to honour the social contract. Winstanley argued that the common people had opposed the king with both money and blood, and had paid a disproportionately high price in both.

There follows a very useful summary of the longstanding historical debate over the precise relationship between the Diggers and the Levellers. Gurney’s approach is rather unusual but refreshing; he essentially tells us that the issue is not all that important, and certainly should not obscure the radical demands of either group. Much of the confusion centres on a particular Winstanley pamphlet called The True Levellers Standard Advanced (1649). Note the lack of apostrophe; Gurney suggests that it refers (in the singular) to Christ, the True Leveller. This would negate a great deal of historical debate over why the Diggers (who did not seem to refer to themselves by that name either) had given themselves a name so close to that of an already-existing radical movement, the Levellers. Gurney also brings out very well the viciousness of the attacks on Winstanley himself, on his livestock, and on the land used by the Diggers.

Leftist traditions are divided over whether Winstanley represents a true precursor to later incarnations of socialism or communism, but Gurney makes a powerful case for the Diggers as genuine proto-communists. It is difficult to argue with this, though some leftist traditions of course do; Winstanley favoured a national strike, attacked wage labour, believed that all things are held in common and railed against the clerical and secular authorities and their wealthy masters. That said, readers may find it a step too far when Gurney insists that Winstanley’s final important work, The Law of Freedom (1652), fits with this radical set of ideals. There are bold attempts to smooth the differences between the earlier and later Winstanley but those extracts from The Law of Freedom included (in a very fair and even-handed manner) by Gurney still convey a retreat into a more conservative and patriarchal line of argument.

Finally, we should remember to look a bit further afield. The context of the outbreak of radicalism is not only the ‘English Revolution’, as Christopher Hill dubbed it, but a wider series of economic and social upheavals ranging across Europe during the transition from late feudalism to early capitalism (c.1350-c.1700). However, the intricacies of these conflicts are often lost to modern leftist traditions because of their close ties to religious conflict. Beginning with the Peasants’ Revolt in England and the Wycliffe-inspired Lollard movement, the continuing outbreaks of rebellion by the poor, often supported by radical dissenting clerics, spread across Europe and reached a numerical peak in the enormous (but relatively little-known) German Peasants’ War of 1524-26. In this conflict we may find many strands of egalitarian and millenarian thought which later were fused with the specific English complaints about the Norman Yoke to form a hotbed of radicalism in the 1640s. It is very hard to read Winstanley’s work without thinking of Thomas Müntzer, for example. Müntzer, a cleric, was beheaded in Thuringia in 1525 having proclaimed ‘omnia sunt communia’ (‘everything is common’, usually taken to mean ‘all things belong to all people’); a Winstanleyian sentiment to be sure.

Notes

1. Hill went into greater detail in The Religion of Gerrard Winstanley (1976).

Published in: on August 19, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Boy’s a genius

Boy's a genius

The next generation is also worried about the collapse of the wave function

Published in: on November 8, 2013 at 11:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Mallards

We saw a fantastic deal on ducks at our local butcher – four for a tenner. They weren’t too big but we thought the price was too good to miss out on (it worked out about the quarter of the price of prepared meat).

The birds

The birds

The only problem was they were intact (aside from the shot wounds or broken necks); we had a long evening of plucking, eviscerating, cleaning and butchering the ducks, but at the end we had eight breasts, eight legs, a huge pot of carcasses for stock plus some interesting other edible bits: hearts, gizzards and liver.

Plucking the wing

Plucking the wing

The first stage was plucking a band around the wings which would allow us to cut them off later.

Removing the down

Removing the down

Next came the more general plucking of feathers; once the top feathers are pulled, there is a layer of dense down underneath. This got everywhere of course.

Pile of feathers

Pile of feathers

We wondered about using the feathers but adding them to the compost would probably have attracted foxes, so we bagged them up for disposal.

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Finishing the pluck

Once the birds were plucked (the one above was the most successful!) we cleared up a bit and got ready for the evisceration, which we would need to do before we could butcher the meat.

Off with her head

Off with her head

The feet and wings came off first, then the head. This was the moment to pay some sort of muted respect to these beautiful iridescent birds. As meat goes, this is pretty happy stuff – one moment they were evidently stuffing their crops, then in a flash, oblivion. No lifelong corralling or drawn-out sadistic death.

Viscera

Viscera

Digging the organs out of the body cavity was next, using two probing fingers. First the gizzard (on the far right in the picture, more on that below); then the guts, being careful not to perforate them; the lungs; then finally the heart and liver.

Gizzards and hearts

Gizzards and hearts

The guts and lungs were discarded but we kept the gizzards and hearts and a bit of liver (though the liver was very fragile). We had a chicken the other day and will combine the leftover hearts and livers from all the birds in a dish.

Inside the gizzard

Inside the gizzard

Cleaning and preparing the gizzard was probably the most interesting and fiddly bit of work. You have to split the casing, then clean out the grit and other contents. The texture of the inside is remarkable, like a gnarly old heel or piece of crinkled leather.

Prepared gizzards

Prepared gizzards

You can see one of the gizzard linings on the bottom left, they are remarkable. Tough as old boots. This is carefully sliced off leaving some rich, deep burgundy gizzard meat.

Gutted

Gutted

We then had four gutted ducks, ready for filleting, along with a bunch of gizzard halves and some hearts and liver.

The fruit of labour

The fruit of labour

So that’s what we ended up with: eight legs for confit, eight breasts, a pot full of carcasses for stock, and a few bits of offal. About four hours’ work (and a ten quid outlay), but most of all a good lesson into the process and reality of meat preparation. I was a bit rubbish at plucking but I’m sure I’ll improve…

Published in: on October 21, 2013 at 10:07 am  Comments (2)  

Provence

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Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 8:33 am  Comments (1)  

Some brief thoughts on Snowden in historical perspective

I’d just like to point out a few parallels and contrasts between the current case of whistleblowing CIA hacker Edward Snowden and some examples from my milieu of research, mid-C20 Mexico. Snowden is currently attempting to find a state which will offer him political asylum having had his passport suspended by the U.S. government following his leaking of revelations about the NSA’s spying activities (both domestic and foreign).

Snowden had, among his initial flurry of asylum applications, included Russia. Like many other examples from the list, this was curious since his asylum is a result of his (apparent) commitment to open, popular scrutiny of government, something Russia has very little of. Understandable, though – he is backed into a corner and cannot afford to be choosy at this point. This application was withdrawn by Snowden, however, when Vladimir Putin stipulated that his asylum would be dependent on his cessation of human rights-based campaigning. Incidentally, Henrik Hertzberg has written here about the brilliance of Putin’s multi-layered statement on the matter.

This condition of exile naturally brought to my mind that placed upon (first) Leon Trotsky and (later) Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Mexico. In both cases, those negotiating on behalf of the asylum seeker conceded that they would not partake in political activity in their place of exile. This meant domestic political activity – for example, when Pablo Neruda arrived in post-WWII Mexico he was free to criticise the Chilean government. Similarly, Trotsky continued his life as an international revolutionary, but practically-speaking his international map suddenly had a Mexico-shaped hole in it. Hence, when his initial closest allies the LCI called for sabotage and direct action against businesses to protest against the high cost of living in 1937, Trotsky disowned them, describing their methods as “stupid”. (Note that this debate has barely evolved since 1937 and lives on in the Trotskyist and anarchist divergence in current methods to oppose the coalition government in the UK). Nor could Trotsky comment on the manner in which the railroads were (in all likelihood) handed over to workers’ control deliberately in order to fail in 1938.

When the Spanish exiles began to arrive fleeing the Francoist advance, they too were obliged to keep to non-Mexican affairs in their political discussion. In the case of the Republican government in exile this was not too taxing since they spent much of their time engaged in bitter personal recriminations. For those lower down the political hierarchy, though, the safety and opportunity Mexico afforded meant having to put their passions and energies into (usually) cultural – rather than political – affairs. When many of their children became involved in the 1968 student movement and more generalised opposition, the first generation of immigrants panicked, fearful that the political ‘sins’ of the children would be revisited upon them and all would find themselves once again without a home.

I suppose what I am trying to convey is that asylum is a tool for the state which offers it too. It can be used as a fig leaf for domestic authoritarianism, as it was in post-Revolutionary Mexico and (rather honestly, it seems) would have been in Putin’s Russia. Just as the Mexican government could trumpet its fraternal attitude to the Republican refugees while muting them politically, it would later proudly boast of a revolutionary brotherhood with Cuba while providing the U.S. government with lists of passengers travelling there from Mexico and supposedly allowing the C.I.A. to use the Mexican embassy in Havana as a listening post. While we ought to be appalled at the actions of the United States government in twisting arms across the globe to deny Snowden political asylum, we must not forget that states which receive exiles do so for their own politically-expedient reasons – even if they are nominally left-wing.

Published in: on July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Highgate Cemetery

We went for a wander around Highgate Cemetery in the pouring rain on Friday. Here are a few of the more notable graves.

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and of course…

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Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Matt Harvey Oswald

Matt Harvey Oswald

Another entry for Amazin’ Avenue’s awful MSPaint contest

Published in: on April 16, 2013 at 6:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Pre-Raphaelites

I managed a brief rush through the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate last week. Much of it was familiar to me thanks to the prevalence of the more labour-oriented and allegorical works among the municipal galleries of our provincial cities, though I’d also been to a wonderful Holman Hunt show in Manchester a year or two ago.

My opinion on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had, before I went to the Tate exhibition, been rather fixed for some time: that William Holman Hunt was the only true master among them, that Ford Madox Brown (not a PRB member but a close associate and prominent in the Tate show) had moments of genuine greatness, that John Everett Millais could paint but perhaps wasn’t so hot on composition/subject selection, and that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the biggest hacks going, the Damien Hirst of his era.

This show, while enjoyable and rewarding, did nothing to alter my opinions (except perhaps raise Millais somewhat in my estimation). Holman Hunt towers above the rest, a real artistic giant, oozing pain and piety but melding his palette beautifully and imbuing the whole enterprise with a real heft. Of course everyone loves The Hireling Shepherd, The Light of the World and The Scapegoat, but I’m was most taken with The Shadow of Death and Isabella and the Pot of Basil.

Madox Brown has a few absolute gems. The Last of England has long been a favourite (those who know me won’t be surprised), but Work and The Pretty Baa-Lambs are both wonderful; Work and An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead draw me in particularly for their London-explorer interest.

Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents (or Christ in the House of Bobby Charlton as it was always known in our house) was another highlight, though it dawned on me that as a child I always thought the dark-haired youth on the left was Jesus and that the stigmatised boy in the foreground was an interloper who had wandered into the workplace.

I can take or leave Burne-Jones and the rest of the mythological guff, but Rossetti really takes the biscuit; I think he’s a really terrible painter. The hype machine around him reminds of me of Damien Hirst and the Emperor’s New Clothes of crap Brit-Art. I almost said Rossetti reminds me of Peter Doherty, but that strikes me as rather unfair on the latter, for while he similarly is claimed as a sort of fin-de-siecle polymath, he at least is pretty good at one of his trades.

Anyhow, all told, I didn’t learn a great deal (which saddens me in a big exhibition) but then the boy was shouting his head off all day and we couldn’t linger, so perhaps I missed some subtleties. I’d never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Holman Hunts and Madox Browns though, so it was very much a worthwhile visit.

Published in: on January 19, 2013 at 9:33 am  Comments (3)  
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Hunt & Windsor: A Synthpop Phenomenon?

Don’t know why I thought of doing this, but it seemed very fitting when presented with this photo.

The artist formerly known as Prince Harry, and some right hunt.

 

Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  
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